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Interview: Jill Phillips

Several years ago, I was part of a ladies group that decided to read through a book called Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World. Many ladies in the group really connected with that book and learned a lot from it. I was not one of them. That does NOT mean I’m super spiritual and always “choose the better part.” It’s just that I am in no way a Martha, not the kind that book describes anyway: someone who is always organized and on time, someone who loves hosting parties, making crafts, and baking food. No, I need the complete opposite of that book, something called Surviving in Martha’s World When You Have a Mary Heart. I’m the mom who’s always last in the kindergarten pick-up line, the leader who thought the Girl Scouts ceremony was next week, the wife who always makes her husband late for church, that’s me.

So when I first heard Jill Phillips sing, “Do you have a place for losers in this race?” I knew I’d found a kindred spirit. It was at a concert last spring where she sang with the Captains Courageous, a group made up of her husband Andy Gullahorn, Andrew Peterson, and Ben Shive. Jill and Andy told a few stories about their kids that night and when the show was over I just had to meet her. When I got to the front of the line, I reached out for a handshake and Jill leaned in for a hug, then we switched. We both laughed nervously and finally hugged like old friends.

That was also the night I passed AP a letter offering (read: pleading) to write for the Rabbit Room, something that felt quite un-Mary-like at the time. But looking back maybe it is a bit like Mary to take risks and be vulnerable. Those are the same words I thought of when reading over Jill’s responses to my e-mail interview. And whether she feels like a Mary or a Martha, Jill Phillips has definitely chosen the better part. Read on to see how.

JB: Ok, Jill, first things first. How much longer do we have to wait for the Christian version of Lillith Fair? Don’t you agree that the time for mimicry is now, before everyone forgets all about the secular counterpart? There’s a rumor on Facebook, which I may or may not have started, that Sara Groves is putting together a tour headlining you, Sandra McCracken, Karin Behrquist, and Lori Chaffer. Comments?

Jill: I have talked to Sara a few times about some kind of group project with Sandra and Lori and I think it would be incredible. We’re all so busy I think the main obstacle would be finding a time when we could all be in the same place but it isn’t out of the question. It would be a dream project. I don’t know Karin personally but I love her music as well. Her voice is beyond beautiful.

JB: I must admit I am a new fan of yours, and have only seen you perform a few times. When I listen to your records and concentrate on the sound and style, artists like Shawn Colvin and Jewel (the early days) come to mind, as well as Amy Grant and Sara Groves. I’m just curious if you grew up in church and what sort of music you were exposed to. Was secular music embraced or frowned upon in your home?

Jill: I did grow up in the church and grew up mainly listening to folk music. My parents loved James Taylor, Harry Chapin, Peter, Paul and Mary, and many other singer-songwriters who came out of the 60’s and 70’s. They also began to listen to Christian music when I was young and Amy Grant became a staple in our household. They listened to all kinds of music and never made me feel like “Christian” music was the only thing I needed to be listening to. They took me to James Taylor concerts and Amy Grant concerts alike and I am very thankful for that. When I was in high school and really interested in becoming a better singer I listened to a lot of Susan Ashton. In college I was exposed to a plethora of new female singer-songwriters (new to me, anyway) like Patty Griffin, Jonatha Brooke, Patty Larkin and Shawn Colvin. I was just soaking it all in and trying to learn from people who I felt were great at their craft.

JB: You’ve said there’s no secret formula for successfully living out your roles as wife, mother and artist, but practically speaking, what’s your schedule like? Are you most creative in the early mornings, or late at night? And do you spend most of your time working completely alone, or do you work better bouncing ideas around with fellow artists?

Jill: To be honest, I’m in a phase of life where being creative musically is a constant challenge.  I think mothers are incredibly creative people, but a lot of that energy in my life is going to parenting and sometimes there is very little left over for music. I try to give myself a break and understand that this season is short, otherwise I can make myself crazy and do a bad job at both things. My two oldest are in school and my youngest will be before I know it so I’m trying not to rush that. Right now I try to set aside one day a week for writing, I find that is a realistic goal for where I am. We’re also taking practical steps like moving another piano into our dining room so I can try and write more during their naps, etc. Even with guitars in the house I was really missing a piano, ours was in our office which is detached from our house. Having another one in the house has made a huge difference and helps me make the most of those short bits of time throughout the day.

I think writing during the day is best for me because usually by the time the kids are in bed I’m completely exhausted! I guess I work best in the mornings. Most of the time I write alone, but lately I’ve been pushing myself to write with new people. Randall Goodgame and I have been working on a song and I also wrote a little bit with Matt Wertz this fall. I think it’s really good for stretching myself and hopefully it leads to songs that I wouldn’t have written by myself.

JB: One of AP’s popular songs is “Family Man,” where he talks about struggling to settle into domestic life, but what a blessing it turned out to be. It’s a great song, but it’s not all that surprising to me. I’ve often wondered how church people would react if a woman penned a similar song. Have you brushed up against negativity or admiration concerning your career moves, for instance, keeping your recording name Phillips?

Jill: That’s a great question. I don’t know that I know the answer, but I do feel a different expectation placed on me at times versus my male artist friends. I often have people come up to me after shows and ask with great concern about my children and how they manage when I am gone. In the reviews of my records, even when they’re being incredibly complimentary, the reviewers tend to spend a lot of time talking about the different guys that helped me on my record and made it what it is. The comments are subtle and many are very understandable, but my husband does not deal with these same issues. Keeping my maiden name for music never seemed like a statement to me because I started doing music and meeting with my first record label before I was married. In some ways it has been really helpful because if someone calls or approaches me using the name Jill Phillips I know they know me through music. At church, with friends, and just about everywhere else I go by my married name.

JB: There’s a scene in Walk The Line where Sam Phillips asks Johnny Cash what’s the one song he would play if it were his last song ever. Is there a song you’ve written, or perhaps sung, which feels quintessentially “Jill”?

Jill: I feel connected to most of my songs, with the exception of a few from early on that I rarely play. I have to say that “Nobody’s Got it All Together” sums up a lot of what I want to say through my music and a lot of where I am as a person. “Grand Design” feels incredibly personal because in my mind I always see my father when I’m singing it. It takes me back to that day we lost him and the message speaks to me as much today as it did then. I played it recently at a retreat with Eugene Peterson in Texas and cried like a baby while introducing the song. It really took me off guard, but I think there’s something about that message of God’s sovereignty in the midst of tragedy that resonates deep within me.

JB: Is it just in the bag of tricks for good performers, or is it pretty hard to sing intensely personal songs, like “Any Other Way” and “How Precious Life Is” without turning into a blubbering mess on stage?

Jill: I find it can be very hard for me to sing intensely personal songs. Andy wrote “How Precious Life Is” for our dear friends who lost a son and I think it can be easier to go there emotionally when you’re doing it on behalf of someone else.  It took me a long time to want to sing “Any Other Way” live. It’s about a difficult season in our marriage and admitting that to a group of people feels like you’re opening yourself up to scrutiny. At the same time, that’s the very reason I have to do it. It’s at the core of what I believe about songwriting and telling my story truthfully. Going back to the theme of “Nobody’s Got it All Together,” if I pretend my life is perfect I can’t fully express what the gospel has meant to me.

JB: Have you and Andy publicly shared how you met and fell in love? Would you consider humoring us with a sweet little Valentine’s Day stroll down memory lane?

Jill: Andy and I met at Belmont University when we were both students. I was 17 and he was 18. We were babies!  We had classes together every day because we were part of this experimental interdisciplinary program where you would get all of your general ed credits in one big class. So I saw Andy every day at 8 am and over time we got to be great friends. I think we both realized pretty early on in our relationship that we would spend the rest of our lives together. We started dating when I was a sophomore and dated all through school, even got engaged on Belmont’s campus.

JB: We’ve heard Eric Peters is the old Pappy of the Square Pegs. Is it safe to say you play Mom on the tour bus? Are the rest of the guys just overgrown boys? Is there a moody, rebellious teen in the bunch?

Jill: I definitely have a “mom-ish” role on the bus. I’m always telling people who are sick to take their medicine, I work on my Christmas cards on the bus, I tell them to get good sleep. That is really mom-ish now that I think about it. I also feel a bit like the younger sister in that I have to endure jokes, ridicule, action movies, whatever else they might throw at me. I have a brother so I can take it. Everyone does have a role on the tour and very different personalities, but there’s no crazy moody or rebellious one. I think there’s something about being on the bus that brings out the inner college student in all of us. Most of us are married and many of us have children so having food prepared for us, getting to sleep until we wake up, having fewer responsibilities than we would on a normal day at home can be like a vacation. You’re also forced to live in community so there’s a lot of laughing and playing games and then sometimes deep conversations about life and faith. There are no egos in this group. Everyone is so glad to be a part of this tour and a part of telling this story that is bigger than all of us.

JB: And the last thing I believe all Rabbit Room readers are dying to know, Jill: If you were Bella Swan, what would you choose–vampire or werewolf?

Jill: Vampire. Any day of the week. Now I’ll just sit back and wait for the angry theologians to chastise me.



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